D.C. area schools turn to parents for more funding as budgets are squeezed

The District’s Ben W. Murch Elementary School found the cash to save its guidance counselor’s job this year. McLean’s Kent Gardens Elementary shelled out for a new science curriculum. And Oak View Elementary, in Silver Spring, paid for printer cartridges and after-school buses.

Where’d the money come from for all this? Parents.

After years of shrinking budgets, Washington area school districts are increasingly turning to moms and dads to pay for core classroom costs, raising questions about whether tapping family pocketbooks is a sustainable or fair way to fill a public funding gap.

Many educators are concerned that relying on such private largess exacerbates disparities between schools in affluent neighborhoods — where parents sometimes raise hundreds of thousands of dollars per year — and schools in poor neighborhoods, which often make do with public money.

“Let me tell you, I can’t even get $5 for dues on our side of town,” said parent leader Judith Moore at Smothers Elementary School, where three-quarters of students qualify for federally subsidized meals.

The parent group at the school, east of the Anacostia River, raises a few hundred dollars a year, and school administrators work to supplement their base line with extra funds from other outside sources.

Parent giving has a long history in the District, where fundraising at schools in wealthier neighborhoods has helped hire extra instructors to keep class sizes down and arts and music programming generous.

But across the country, parents are increasingly being asked to pitch in as schools struggle to maintain services in an era of cutbacks.

In the past year, state and federal government spending on public education has dropped 5 percent, or $25 billion, while localities have also wrestled with declining revenue, said Mike Griffith, a senior policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States.

Experts say there is no reliable estimate of how much parents have contributed nationally to backfill budget gaps. But many PTAs and other parent groups have expanded their reach beyond traditional “doughnuts with dads” events and are paying for basics, including teacher salaries, curriculum and even capital campaigns to renovate aging buildings.

At Highland View Elementary in Silver Spring — where the PTA traditionally contributes money to causes abroad, such as earthquake relief in Haiti or providing clean running water to a school in El Salvador — parents now are focusing their fundraising on classroom technology.

“This year,” said PTA President Lynne Harris, “our school philanthropy is our school.”

Last spring, parents in Beverly Hills saved 13 teachers’ jobs through a campaign to raise $1 million in one week.

At New York City’s public Children’s Workshop School, parents are picking up the tab for air conditioners, lice checks and electrical wiring.

Schools’ growing demand for parent fundraising has triggered an alarmed response from PTA officials, who say the primary role of the organization is to advocate for public funds, not replace them.

Federal and state budgets are being “balanced on the backs of our children and our families,” said National PTA President Betsy Landers.

Advocates for parent giving, meanwhile, say such philanthropy promotes stronger community connections to public schools and gives families more control over their children’s education.

The trend has moved beyond traditional PTAs to a growing number of local education foundations, often started by parents, that aim to raise ambitious sums.

“Most of the time, philanthropy is filling in cracks or frosting on the cake,” said Jim Collogan, executive director of the National School Foundation Association, which estimates that there are more than 4,000 such foundations around the country. But in some schools, it’s become “the only way to keep the strings program.”

Parents paying salaries

With 80 percent of school budgets typically consumed by personnel costs, more parents are chipping in for teacher salaries.

In March, the PTA at Horace Mann Elementary hosted an auction at the Italian Embassy. Parents bid on donated spa treatments or vacation rentals in France and Bali, raising tens of thousands of dollars to pay for teaching assistants and professional development.

At Murch, the home-school association started the 2011-12 year with more than a quarter-million dollars in the bank and a plan to raise an additional $277,000. In addition to spending $33,753 to keep the counselor’s job from being cut to part time, the money paid for six full-time classroom assistants, four part-time recess aides, laptops and teacher training.

Meanwhile, at Smothers Elementary in Ward 7, the parent group raises a few hundred dollars a year. Some schools have no parent organization at all.

“It’s hard to see how we justify allowing some schools to go begging while other schools are able to supplement,” said Mary Lord, who represents Ward 2 on the D.C. Board of Education. “It’s like saying, ‘If you are rich, you can afford the antibiotics, and if you are poor, you cannot.’ ”

Some parents say it is far better to invest in the school system than to abandon it, and District officials say that, on balance, they welcome the dedication of resources and energy the parents bring.

High-poverty schools such as Smothers do get some extra federal funding. And there are other sources for help, including college volunteers and nonprofit organizations. In January, the school won $100,000 from Target to modernize the computer lab.

Even so, Principal Shannon Feinblatt has to make tough decisions.

This year, she decided not to hire a gym teacher and to use those dollars for a Spanish instructor. Next year, there will be no music teacher; the money will be better invested in computer classes, she said.

But Feinblatt and Moore, the parent leader, agreed that the school has what it needs to succeed, including parent support that comes in the form of volunteer time instead of dollars.

“I wouldn’t say that our kids feel that they’re receiving anything less,” Moore said.

PTAs’ shift

School districts in suburban Washington have traditionally been less open to outside support, drawing a line when it comes to hiring staff.

That’s “an absolute no” in Montgomery County, said Pat O’Neill of the Board of Education. “We don’t want to create an inequitable system,” she said.

Fairfax has the same policy when it comes to paying for staff members, but some parent advocates say schools in both counties have come to rely more on parent dollars for other things.

The trend started more than a decade ago when the school system stopped subsidizing field trips, said Michele Menapace, former president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. “School leaders turned to their PTAs to bridge that gap, and that’s when, at least in our area, PTAs really started becoming fundraisers as their number one priority,” she said.

Around the region, parent groups have taken on more responsibility for outfitting schools with technology and curriculum. School systems are also increasingly charging fees for activities or courses, a trend that triggered so much push-back from Montgomery parents in 2009 that some such fees were eliminated.

At Kent Gardens, the PTA routinely reports revenue of more than $300,000. In the past two years, the group jump-started a new science, technology, engineering and math curriculum, spending $60,000 to train teachers and buy supplies.

Many parents at the school wish they could go further. Fairfax and other districts direct more teachers to the neediest schools, leaving affluent schools with some of the largest class sizes.

“I’ve had a lot of parents come up to me and say, ‘I’ll write you a check for $500 — and I’ll go out and solicit my friends — if we could hire more teachers,’ ” PTA President Richard Sargent said.

As parent fundraising expands its role in public schools, districts have addressed donation disparities in different ways.

A small but growing number of cities, including Portland, Ore., and Santa Monica, Calif., require schools to pool some of their donated funds.

In the District, school leaders have encouraged investment from parents but also have sought help from foundations or other sources for schools where parents can’t write checks, said D.C. Public Schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz.

Fairfax parent leaders are planning to launch a countywide organization this fall, unofficially dubbed the “Beltway PTA.” It will solicit membership fees from businesses and residents and distribute funds to needy schools for computers or cultural events.

Meanwhile in Montgomery County, PTAs in well-to-do neighborhoods commonly team up with sister schools with greater needs.

“Funds are tight everywhere right now,” said Risa May, president of the Somerset Elementary School Foundation in Montgomery. “This is an opportunity for parents to bridge the gap between the teachers’ and administrators’ wish list and what the county can provide.”

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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